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Peter Berg: auteur with TV's "Friday Night Lights," not with movies

Recently, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia ("Mother and Child") told me that even though he's done tons of quality TV (including developing HBO's "In Treatment"), he wanted movies to be the medium in which he can mount projects that are totally original in concept and execution. He wanted TV to be the medium in which he simply hones and extends his craft.

With Peter Berg it seems to be just the opposite. (That's Will Smith, left, in Berg's big-screen hit, "Hancock.") Watching the kick-off episode Berg directed for the new season of "Friday Night Lights" on my lap-top last night (I missed the broadcast a week ago because of the Maryland Film Festival), I was bowled over all over again by the series' brilliant, funny, tough-tender approach to family, class, race and community in a football-crazy Texas town.

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Has there ever been a fuller portrait of a marriage between two strong-willed people? Kyle Chandler as a sane, embattled high school football coach and Connie Britton as his principled high school principal wife bring deep-toned humor, sensual rapport, and instinctive if imperfect understanding to their marital bond. As we used to chant about culture heroes in the '60s, "Erik and Tami Taylor. Live like them."

But what of Berg's film record? This TV series he developed has overshadowed his 2004 movie version of "Friday Night Lights," a more limited and conventional adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's book. Recently it was dismaying to see Berg's name on the script for that numb-skull jamboree "The Losers." But even the films he directs tend to break into sections. "Hancock" was amusing only in its first half; "The Kingdom" (by far his best big-screen work) had a great first third and last third.

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I will say this for Berg's movies: In one case, he was ahead of his time. A dozen years ago he made "Very Bad Things," a rancid nightmare farce depicting what happens when a Vegas bachelor party goes wrong. Way wrong. As soon as the suburban-L.A. friends set down their bags in Vegas, they instantly zone out on drugs and alcohol. The moment a sinuous stripper appears like a left-over vision from "Showgirls," you know you shouldn't grow too fond of her. This picture poses as an unblinkered look at the hang-ups and hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. In reality it's an empty, narcissistic tantrum. In other words, it's like "The Hangover" done by a moralist with a hangover.

What do you think of Berg's movies? I confess I haven't seen Berg's "The Rundown," starring the Rock. Would it alter my view of his film-directing career?

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